Fellas, let’s talk about what we are feeding our souls. Most importantly, of course, we must nourish them through the sacraments, but there is another kind of food that they also need, and that is good and holy thoughts and words to ponder. Just as the health of your body is affected by what you eat, so the health of your soul can be affected by what you read. We have to be careful to consume what is good and avoid what is bad, lest we make ourselves sick.
Now, not all of us are quite as sensitive about such things (though all stand to be enriched by good and holy reading). Some have resolute temperaments that are hardly affected by the words and actions of others. This does not necessarily make such brethren better or worse; at times enduring much awfulness can be a great strength, and at times being unmoved by something of significance can be a great weakness. They have different needs; here I intend to concentrate chiefly on those of us who are deeply and easily moved by what we read or otherwise witness.
If you are like me, then you do not simply pass through what you read. You gnaw upon it, you digest it, you mull over it at great length. You can, if you are not careful, be completely carried away by even a little bit of it. Reading the news is an emotional assault. Comment boxes are utterly devastating and infuriating. An acquaintance posting something you strongly disagree with can threaten to ruin your day. Going online can be very dangerous, as we are confronted with a great deal of poison that we can hardly help but swallow in great gulps.
Our interests also tend to consume us. We can obsess over minor details of whatever it is we have an interest in –a book, a show, a game, a sport- scrutinizing it with a fervor that others find impressive but perhaps also somewhat excessive. We can become frustrated when such a thing fails to hold up to our examination, such that we wonder whether we actually enjoy the things that we profess to love, given how painfully aware we are of their imperfections.
Since so much of our world is deeply flawed, it is easy for us to become quite sickened, either by the failings of enjoyable things (which others who are not so inclined to over-scrutinize find perfectly agreeable) or the preponderance of loathsome things (which others who are not so sensitive quickly dismiss from their minds). We can begin to become overwhelmed by the mediocrity and wickedness of this world, and it can make us miserable. We must beware: the devil loves it when we are miserable, because it makes us far more susceptible to his assaults.
This is why we must take great care with what we “eat” in our reading. First, we must limit our consumption of what is bad; we, more than anyone else, should consider it a matter of our spiritual health to avoid reading comments, to remove people or accounts whose words or deeds are regularly upsetting from our feeds, to avoid following the news more than is absolutely required for our duties. We must, in a sense, cut out what is unhealthy for our cognitive diet, and create for ourselves a sort of spiritual monastery within our environment where we can take shelter from the world.
This alone is not enough, however. If we merely reduce what is bad, we shall still need something to occupy our minds. Hence, we must also consume that which is nourishing and wholesome, and allow ourselves to chew upon it. I do not here mean merely that which we personally enjoy and find pleasant, for as I said we will often find that all too wanting. We must turn our attention each day to that which is infinitely good, which withstands and excels all our pondering and scrutiny, to the only thing which can truly satisfy our hungry minds: the infinity and infinite perfection of God.
St. Dominic, who as a young canon was known to retreat regularly to study whenever he was free of other duties.
How can we do this? Our minds wander easily, and they pick up whatever they encounter like a hungry dog. Thus we must each day read text which is wholesome and religious in nature, even for just a short while, keeping in mind our temporal duties. We must insist upon doing this even when we feel bad or when we feel good. Like any diet, we must hold to it whether it feels necessary or effective or not.
There are several ways to do this, but reciting at least part of an office is an excellent way to begin. In particular, I recommend starting with Lauds of either the Liturgy of Hours or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Read it when you first get up so that you can return to it in your thoughts throughout the day. If, during the day you find your spirits turning downward, recall to mind your morning office, and reflect upon it.
It is also good to assign to yourself some regular reading from the writings of a saint, if not every day then at least for an hour on Sunday. The letters of St. Catherine of Siena (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7403 , do note that the translator here is a 19th century Episcopalian woman) and St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the Book of Job (http://dhspriory.org/thomas/SSJob.htm ) are both beautiful and easily accessed online, but it might also be wise to consult with your spiritual director for readings appropriate to your own situation. Again, even if you do not always feel it is necessary, you must make this reading a priority for your health. What you read becomes what you think. What you think becomes what you do. What you do becomes who you are. Remember this.